In Prague-born author Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella The Metamorphosis, a man named Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning and discovers that he has somehow been transformed into a cockroach. But this, it seems, was not the first time that a human being had undergone a baffling overnight transformation. I give you, for example, British author Walter de la Mare’s novel The Return, which was initially published in 1910, when the author was 37 and just recently retired, and which subsequently saw two revised editions, in 1922 and ’45. To tell you the truth, I’m really not sure which version of this classic tale of psychic possession I just experienced, but can say that it was in a Dover edition that came out in 1997, with a scholarly introduction by S.T. Joshi. And I can also say that my uncertainty as to which version of the novel I read was just the first of many head-scratching posers that I encountered in this book. In his intro, Joshi calls The Return “gripping and poignant … a masterpiece of brooding horror,” and while I’m not sure that I would concur with that statement, I will confess that the novel was both fascinating and unique … if a bit frustrating, at times.
In the book, the reader encounters a middle-aged man named Arthur Lawford, who lives in … well, come to think of it, we are never actually told where in England Arthur resides; just that it’s in the suburbs, near the fictitious town of Widderstone. Lawford works as a … um, come to think of it, we are never told that, either; just another bit of vagueness, in a book filled with so many. While convalescing after a bout with the flu, Lawford strolls into a church’s graveyard one fine September afternoon and falls into a reverie by the grave of a Frenchman named Nicholas Sabathier, a suicide who had died in 1739 or thereabouts (the writing on Sabathier’s tombstone is effaced and, er, vague).
After awakening from strange imaginings, Lawford manages to stumble home, but receives the shock of his life when he looks into his bedroom mirror: He now wears the face of a stranger … a man he has never seen before! His wife, Sheila, is scandalized, and indeed believes Arthur to be an impostor, insisting on keeping Arthur’s physical change a secret from their daughter, Alice, as well as from their servants and neighbors. Several days later, Arthur returns to Sabathier’s tombstone in desperation, only to meet a very unusual man there; a bookish recluse named Herbert Herbert (the possible name inspiration for Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert character in 1955’s Lolita?). Arthur goes to Herbert’s ghost-haunted abode, meets his sister Grisel, and is shown an old pamphlet with Sabathier’s picture in it. It is the very image of his own newly acquired face, it seems! Sabathier, who had been a dissolute rake, a libertine and all-around free spirit (why the back cover of the Dover edition, as well as Joshi in his intro, refer to Sabathier as a “pirate” is beyond me; no mention of his being a pirate could be found in the version that I just read), has not only placed his leering mug on Arthur’s body, but soon (seemingly) begins to exert a malign influence on him mentally, as well. And when Sheila and Alice move away, leaving Lawford to fend for himself, his problems are only magnified…
Those readers who are curious enough to tackle The Return, anticipating a shocking and frightening thrill ride (as was I, to be truthful), might be disappointed in how de la Mare’s book ultimately pans out. Indeed, incidents in this book are minimal; mood, language and philosophical ideas are everything. The book is talky in the extreme, and after Arthur’s transformation in Chapter 1, there is virtually nothing in the way of “action” to be had. Characters go on forever about the ramifications of Arthur’s change, and the language that de la Mare utilizes is literally elliptical, employing ellipses and dashes as thoughts and statements trail off (“I can hardly believe how…”; “We are so used to tramping that…”; “I do still love you, just as I…”) into … yup, vagueness. Not for nothing has Joseph Campbell, writing in “The Guardian,” called de la Mare’s technique one of “gothic whimsy and goblin language”!
And adding to the book’s vagueness is the fact that we never learn for sure how Sabathier has managed his trick, or even if this change might be possibly psychosomatic on Arthur’s part. Herbert is of the belief that the Frenchman has returned as a revenant, and then, unaccountably, he reverses his opinion in the very next chapter. Indeed, the author keeps things so hazy that we aren’t even clear when Arthur’s face begins to return to normal, and are never even told Alice’s age until the final pages of the book. (Until then, we weren’t sure if she was 6 or 36!) Similarly, character descriptions and landscapes are only perfunctorily sketched in. The net effect of all this deliberate obscurity, thus, is one of dreamlike otherworldliness that requires the reader to exercise his/her imagination to the full (“not that there’s anything wrong with that!”).
And before I go on, I should certainly mention that the chief selling point of The Return is its deft use of language and its sustained creation of mood. The book may be frustrating and borderline annoying in parts, not to mention occasionally overwritten (“I am afraid you are exactly what the poor fellow in his delirium solemnly asseverated”; “She’s all sheer Laodicean…”), and was a bit of a labor for me to slog through, but the author’s writing skill, fortunately, always kept me hanging in there. It came as no surprise to me to learn that de la Mare was also an accomplished poet, and many sections of his novel do read like prose poetry. Thus, we get lines such as:
At death’s door … have you ever … seen that door … its ruinous stone lintel, carved into lichenous stone heads … stonily silent in the last thin sunlight, hanging in peace unlatched…
And, “The last swallows filled the gold air with their clashing stillness…”; and “Darkness lay like the hem of an enormous cloak, whose jewels above the breast of its wearer might be in the unfathomable clearness the glittering constellations…”; and “the child whom Time’s busy robins had long ago covered over with the leaves of numberless hours…”; and “His eyes shone dark and full like those of a child who has trespassed beyond its hour for bed, and sits marvelling at reality in a waking dream…” Whew!
Likewise, de la Mare offers up many wonderful bits of ruminative philosophy in his book, and thus, we get such gems as “After thirty, my dear boy, one merely annotates, and the book’s called Life…”; and “What a haunting, inescapable riddle life was…”; and “America — that land of jangled nerves…”; as well as this marvelous statement from Herbert:
…one by one drop off the truisms, and the Grundy-isms, and the pedantries, and all the stillborn claptrap of the market-place sloughs off. Then one can seriously begin to think about saving one’s soul…
Of course, de la Mare also offers up the occasional abstruse nugget, such as “There are only two kinds of happiness in this world — a wooden post’s and Prometheus’s…” Uh, yah, OK. I would be lying if I told you that I understood everything that the author was trying to get across here; The Return is surely a book that must be read slowly, carefully and savoringly, if at all possible. It is also a book that would surely reward a repeat perusal, for those whose patience levels are greater than mine. “But what does it all mean?” Arthur asks himself at the beginning of his ordeal; “The more I think of it … the less I understand,” he tells us toward the end, and the reader will most likely share in his befuddlement.
In short, The Return is a mystifying journey, a challenging one, but surely not without its rewards. The book was well liked and praised by no less a figure than H.P. Lovecraft, and today, more than a century since its release, there exists the Official Walter de la Mare Society on the Internet to help spread the word about the author’s works. Personally, I just might be willing to tackle some of this writer’s short horror fiction one day, or perhaps his most well-known novel, 1921’s Memoirs of a Midget (written well before that last word was deemed un-P.C.). Perhaps Herbert was speaking of someone very much like de la Mare, when he tells Arthur, “As for literature, and style, and all that gallimaufry, don’t fear for them if your author has the ghost of a hint of genius in his making…”